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New York Magazine Features Savoy’s Killian Mansfield

New York Magazine, 10.18.09

David Amsden

Never Mind the Pity
How a dying teenager’s dream turned into the making of a miraculous album.

Woodstock, Halloween night, 2008. The town’s main streets, a quaint cluster of earthy boutiques and cafés, are closed to traffic, allowing the teenagers of the Catskills to take part in an annual tradition known as the Shaving Cream Rave. With dance music pumping from massive speakers, kids gather at the triangle where Tinker Street merges with Rock City Road, impish grins on their faces and cheap metallic cans of shaving cream in hand. Then chaos: shaving cream shooting into the air, covering the streets, slathered and slapped on bodies, rendering all costumes unrecognizable, obsolete.

Among those looking forward to this bit of community-sanctioned madness is a 15-year-old boy named Killian Mansfield, lanky, sardonic, inquisitive-looking. Like many teenagers, Killian is drawn to music—his iPod is stocked to capacity with everything from hip-hop to esoteric jazz—though unlike most teenagers he has long displayed a precocity when it comes to making music. He spent his early years living in the city, first in West Harlem, then in an 800-square-foot co-op in Riverdale. Back then, his mother, Barbara, worked as an arts fund-raiser, and his father, Phil, now a photographer, was a tour guide. Killian attended violin recitals at the Manhattan School of Music and began playing himself at age 3, first violin, then fiddle, and has more recently turned his attention to one of music’s more eccentric instruments: the ukulele. The instrument’s limitations—its peculiar size, its strange open-tuning combinations—are, for Killian, its strengths. He likes to play unexpected songs on the uke: stadium anthems, blues, funk, alternative rock. Always carrying his neon-orange uke case, he has become known in the area as something of a teenage troubadour, often jamming with local musicians who quickly forget that he is still, technically speaking, a kid.

Arriving in Woodstock, on Halloween night, Killian immediately leaps into the fray. He has lately developed an ironic fixation on all things Chuck Norris, and tonight he is dressed as the kung-fu master circa 1985: army boots, a denim vest tightly buttoned over a spandex muscle suit, and a fuzzy glue-on strawberry-blond beard. Within five minutes, however, he is covered in shaving cream and having an awesome time … until his parents, standing on the sidewalk, see him emerge from the crowd, a distraught look on his face. He is calm—Killian is nearly always calm—but something is clearly wrong. His hand is gripping a spot just behind his left ear.

“We have to go,” Killian tells his mother and father, when he finds them. “It’s bleeding.”

It is a tumor, one that Killian keeps hidden with his long, sandy brown hair. He was diagnosed with cancer at age 11, a rare form called synovial sarcoma, made up of cells that invade muscle and bone tissue. After an awful year of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as two major surgeries in which a piece of his jaw was removed, he seemed to beat it. Around that time, his family moved to West Shokan, a picturesque hamlet twenty minutes north of Woodstock located along the Ashokan Reservoir. They lived out of a general store they operated off Route 28A, an old-fashioned little place with rickety tables and an antique icebox. “We really just came out here on a whim,” says Barbara. “In a way, I hoped that if we left the city, the cancer wouldn’t come back.” For two years it didn’t. Then, in 2007, a scan revealed tumors in Killian’s mouth and throat.

The day before Halloween, Killian was at his weekly uke lesson with Ralph Legnini, a family friend who has a recording studio on his property: a cozy space heated by an electric stove. Ralph got to know the Mansfields through the general store, which they were forced to give up shortly after Killian’s cancer returned. Too many bills, too much to think about. Still, the store had had a profound effect on the community—bringing together everyone from Times-reading weekenders to local deer hunters—and everyone now does whatever they can to help the Mansfields. Ralph had been particularly impressed by Killian’s bluesy version of Prince’s “Kiss.” He added his own progressions, tweaking the song in places, and his voice had a beguiling depth and maturity: The kid sounded like somebody who had lived a long, complicated life but not let go of his innocence. For kicks, they recorded the track. “If you ever want to record anything else,” Ralph told Killian, “just let me know.” It was a casual offer. Ralph envisioned Killian coming by with friends his age, goofing off, going home, nothing more.

A couple of days after Halloween, the Mansfield family is in an ambulance bound for the city, speeding down Route 87. The tumor has not stopped bleeding. This is abnormal. Killian is writhing in a pain he has described as throbbing, needling, electric, knifelike … Killian has always been an articulate guy, but this … this is a pain that defies his ability to describe it. He says, more than once, that he thinks he is going to die. After an excruciating wait in the emergency room at Columbia Presbyterian, Killian is taken into surgery for an embolization. The goal is to cut off the blood flow to the tumor. But when the doctors emerge, they tell Killian’s parents that the operation is unsuccessful. Killian, they say, will not be leaving the hospital.

But cancer is never predictable; it’s especially unpredictable with teenagers, whose bodies are at the peak of their health. So while the doctors are delivering the grim news to Killian’s parents, and while his parents call friends and family, his body manages a miraculous rally, expelling the tumor on its own. As it turns out, Killian will be leaving the hospital, though his doctors are far from optimistic. There are no more options—he has been through countless experimental trials in the past year, none of them pleasant, none of them successful—and from here on out he will be under hospice care. If he makes it to Christmas, his parents are told, he will be lucky.

“Killian,” his doctor says to him a few days later, “you understand something very serious has happened, right?”

“I do.”

“How much do you want to know about it?”

“Nothing,” Killian replies, his standard response to such questions over the years. “I don’t want to know anything.”

During the two weeks Killian spends in the hospital recovering, he meanders around the corridors in his scrubs playing his uke for other patients. At one point he finds himself thinking back to the moment during his uke lesson with Ralph, just two days earlier, now seemingly a lifetime away. He has an idea. “I want to record with Ralph,” he tells his mother, “but I don’t want to do it with friends.” Smiling, but serious, he adds, “I want to play with famous people.”

Killian is very specific about his intentions. He wants to put together an album that raises money for Hope & Heroes, the integrative-therapy program at Columbia Presbyterian, and a relatively new field in cancer treatment. Integrative therapy, which includes everything from diet to acupuncture to massage, is about keeping the patient not just alive but comfortable and in control. Killian’s parents joke that he chose this cause because his integrative therapists happen to all be beautiful young women.

While still hospitalized, Killian puts together a dream list of musicians he’d like to work with, focusing on those who spend time in the Catskills. E-mails are sent, calls made, favors asked. He wants to make the record a love letter to the idyllic, eclectic swath of America where he’s lived the past few years. As the responses come in, however, the project shapes up to be far more ambitious than anyone first imagined. Among those who sign on are Dr. John, the legendary New Orleans songwriter; Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band; Kate Pierson of the B-52s; the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian; and Todd Rundgren. Ralph agrees to put off all other work in the studio. Killian, meanwhile, compiles a list of songs that, in some way or another, are connected in his mind to integrative therapy. He sees “Scratch My Back,” by renowned bluesman Slim Harpo, as a reference to massage; “Express Yourself,” the funk classic, is chosen to give props to the Cancer Dancers, a group that reaches out to sick children through dance. “Kiss” he deems “one of the greatest love songs ever written,” love being perhaps the best integrative therapy around. Topping his “dream list” of collaborators is David Bowie, with whom Killian imagines recording a uke version of “Starman.”

On November 12, 2008, Killian returns home from the hospital and goes to work, spending as much time at Ralph’s studio as his health allows. Merely leaving the house entails a painful procedure, his mother spending over an hour bandaging his face. To manage the now constant pain, he is on a thrice-daily regimen of medications: Dilaudid, steroids, methadone, and “fentanyl pops”—lollipops coated in an opiate. As a result, Killian is often drowsy, half there, and frustrated by his limitations. On good days, he can work for a few hours; on bad days, he can’t leave the house. The day after he returns from the hospital, he goes in to record “Blue Skies,” by Irving Berlin, but has to stop because of the pain the headphones cause him. Though he never talks about the gravity of his situation, everyone around him is gripped by a palpable sense of urgency, the unspoken question hovering around the project being: Can it be completed while Killian is still alive?

Wearing a gray-and-blue pullover, a pair of black jeans, and his favorite pair of laceless Pumas, Killian stands in front of the microphone, singing Elvis’s “If I Can Dream”: “If I can dream of a warmer sun / Where hope keeps shining for everyone / Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear.” Killian has to be careful not to touch the microphone with his face—just grazing it causes unbearable pain. Killian can’t even wear headphones, which means he has to rely primarily on his memory of the song, as opposed to being able to clearly hear the piano track he’s singing against. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that the tumors in his mouth and throat are growing faster now. Barbara realizes that it won’t be long before her son can no longer sing. “And while I can think, while I can talk / While I can stand, while I can walk, while I can dream, please let my dream come true right now.”

For all the obstacles, the result turns out to be unexpectedly powerful. Killian is unhappy with the rawness of his voice, but Ralph thinks it gives edge to the song.

The next week, keyboardist Scott Healy stops by to record with Killian. Healy, who plays in the house band for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien, has a house in the area, and was among the many locals who befriended the Mansfields through their store. He adds “woozy, avant-garde” accordion licks to Killian’s version of “Kiss.” Listening to the playback, Scott is bowled over. “From a professional standpoint, you can hear that he just nailed that song,” Scott says. “He’s playing right into the pocket, adding progressions that aren’t in the original, things professionals struggle with for years.” As they listen, Ralph’s wife enters the room, and soon the three of them are in tears.

A few minutes later, Killian stops by to see how things are going. Though his mother makes the bandage on his face look more like a fashionable headband than a medical necessity, it is clear he is in bad shape. Still, he remains his curious self; it appears easy for him to forget about the illness at the heart of the whole project. He asks Scott about the accordion and, within a few minutes, figures out how to play a couple of songs himself. He loves hanging out in the studio, fiddling around, bouncing ideas off one another. When they play “Kiss,” however, Killian’s mood changes. He doesn’t want to hear it. His voice, he has abruptly decided, is an embarrassment, and he now declares that he doesn’t want any of the songs on which he sings lead vocals to be on the record. When Ralph tries to dissuade him, Killian walks out of the studio. As sick as he is, he remains as stubborn as any other teenager.

David Bowie has yet to respond to Killian’s request, and Killian is told they need to move forward without him. Initially, Killian is heartbroken: He has never played what he calls “the cancer card” in his life, has never let the disease “define him,” as he often puts it, and he feels he is owed. But he quickly gets over this setback, coming up with a novel solution on November 22, when the family holds what they deem to be “the ultimate sleepover.” Killian’s aunt comes in from Portland with her fiancé, and Cally, Killian’s younger sister, invites Ralph’s daughter, Lucia, a close friend. The gang gives one another homemade facials made with cucumber, avocado, and honey; they play MarioKart on Wii until their fingers are numb; they dance to a mix Killian made for the event; they make videos of living-room mayhem and upload them onto YouTube. At one point, Killian turns to Lucia, a sprightly 10-year-old, and decides that she should sing the lead vocals on “Starman” in place of Bowie. He asks his sister to do backup, since he has always thought of “Starman” as a “conversation between two close friends.” Recorded a few weeks later, the song turns out to be more than a gimmick: melancholic and joyful at the same time, an incidental reinvention of the classic, and one of the album’s best songs.

Today, November 24, turns out to be the high point of the endeavor. Killian has been feeling surprisingly well over the past few days, most likely because he is now also on morphine. Sometimes working up to four hours at a time, he has finished most of the uke tracks. Whereas the bulk of the recording has to be done in pieces—Killian laying down his sections, then going home to rest while others come in—today he is able to record live with John Sebastian. When Sebastian arrives in the afternoon, he finds Killian listening to earlier recordings, tweaking the sound on the mixing board, scrutinizing every chord and transition. “The fact that he was a kid, the fact that he was sick—I forgot about that in two minutes,” Sebastian says. “He was a pro, someone who knew how to express himself fully with an instrument.” The two of them sit in front of a mike together to record “Fishin’ Blues,” a song Sebastian originally played with the Lovin’ Spoonful. At one point, Sebastian struggles to remember one of his own chord progressions, and Killian says, “Wait, I think what you mean is something like this,” and illustrates the point on his uke. “Yes, exactly,” Sebastian says, clearly surprised by Killian’s audacity.

“Now, that was pretty ballsy,” Killian’s mom says to him on the way home, “telling John Sebastian how to play his own song.”

“Seriously?” Killian looks dismayed. “Was I a total asshole?”

“Um, not an asshole. You just have some balls.”

Killian laughs, pleased with himself.

By December, the tumors in his mouth and throat have made eating and breathing nearly impossible. Christmas dinner turns out to be a punishing affair. Killian finds himself sitting at a table covered with beautiful food that he cannot touch.

After some discussion and much advocating from his oncologist, Killian agrees to spend five weeks in the city to undergo radiation at Beth Israel to shrink the tumors. The treatment is referred to as “palliative”—a new, ominous term for the family. While staying at the Ronald McDonald House on the Upper East Side, Killian gets a visit from John Pizzarelli, the accomplished jazz guitarist, with whom he once played at a gala for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, for kids with chronic illnesses. Pizzarelli brings his guitar for a jam session, which he thinks of initially as a favor for a sick child. But as he and Killian start playing together in one of the building’s recreation lounges, Pizzarelli finds the experience to be no different from playing with a fellow professional. “It was just clear immediately that he was light-years ahead of his time in every way possible,” Pizzarelli says. “He wasn’t nervous, the way a lot of kids are around adults. He was like, ‘Hey, man, let’s play.’ He was totally at ease with his whole vibe.” For an hour and a half, they played together, mainly old jazz standards that Pizzarelli was impressed Killian knew. “When I got there, I sort of thought I was on a kind of playdate, right?” Pizzarelli recalls. “Then Killian starts playing his ukulele, and I was like, Oh, really? He knew chord voicings that, for lack of a better way of putting it, I knew. Soon he was showing me things. No joke, the kid was totally schooling me.”

Killian makes it past New Year’s, through the winter, and into the spring, longer than anyone expected. He even returns to school, attending classes when he can, and insists on hanging out with friends without his parents hovering nearby. In April, he is invited over to Levon Helm’s studio to record “Fire in My Pocket,” a song Ralph has written. This is the last piece of the album. As with Sebastian, it’s another live session, everyone playing together, improvising and sharing ideas. At this point, however, the cancer has spread into Killian’s arms, making strumming the uke intensely painful. He has to be given an extra dose of morphine, and is frustrated by not being able to play as well as he can. But he perseveres. He knows it’s never going to get any better.

A few days later, Ralph sits Killian down to attempt, one last time, to convince him that “Kiss” and “If I Can Dream” need to be on the record. Well-versed in negotiating with artists, Ralph knows to tread carefully. He tells Killian that what began as a kind of lark has turned into something bigger, a genuinely terrific record. Your record. Ralph explains: “Your face is going to be on the cover, your name is going to be on the cover—this thing is yours. Without your voice on it, the project doesn’t jell.”

Jim Friedlich, a founding partner in ZelnickMedia, an investment firm that owns the record label Savoy Records, has a weekend house in Shokan, a few miles from the Mansfield’s. He first met the family when they were running the general store, and stops by the house for brunch in early March. Over French toast, Killian’s mother tells Friedlich about the album they’ve been working on, explaining, casually, that they’ve been going into the studio with “some musicians in the area.” Friedlich asks for details, and is amazed when Barbara runs down the list. Dr. John is even one of Savoy’s artists.

“Do you have a label yet?” Friedlich asks.

“No, not yet.”

“If you want, I could take it to the Savoy guys and see what they think.”

The following Monday, Friedlich receives three unmastered tracks from the album, and passes them along to Josh Sherman, who heads Savoy’s New York operations, as well as Stu Fine, the label’s head of A&R. Veterans of the music business, they are skeptical about the idea—sympathetic, yes, but not sure that something arranged by a teenager deserves their time. Later in the day, however, when Friedlich stops by Fine’s office, he finds him sitting at his cluttered desk, listening to the tracks on oversize Denon speakers.

“Jimmy, this is really beautiful,” Fine says, shaking his head. “This is the real thing.”

Killian decides to call the record Somewhere Else, because the songs, as eclectic as they seem, are all in some way or another about escape, about transcending the present. On a brisk spring afternoon, Killian and his father, Phil, head to the train station in Phoenicia to shoot photos for the album’s liner notes. It’s not an active station, just a quirky little museum of a lost era: antique cabooses sitting in overgrown grass, the paint chipped and faded on the depot’s wood siding. Killian is wearing an oversize vintage wool suit, a skinny tie loosened around his neck. A collector of hats, he today opts for an old fedora, giving him a look that is part hipster, part hobo. Phil takes many pictures, and later they select one of Killian sitting at the station as the potential cover. Phil enhances with a sepia wash, giving it a look that, like the music, is both modern and old-fashioned. In the bottom left of the image is one of the antique tin robots that Killian collects: a visitor, in a sense, from somewhere else.

Josh Sherman, the head of Savoy’s New York office, loves how Phil’s picture adds to the record’s cohesive vision—about legacy, and timelessness and loss, but undercut with Killian’s sly sense of humor. The deal is done. To make sure Killian gets to hold the actual product, Friedlich burns a copy of the mastered disc in his office, and, using a paper-cutter, glue stick, and the jewel case from another album, assembles a prototype of the final product and has it delivered to Killian on his 16th birthday. When Killian sees it, he is pleased, but wants to make sure there are no mistakes. He spends the next few hours in his room, listening to the album over and over, eventually emerging with a boyish smile on his face. Later that day, he signs the papers completing his first record deal.

Something no parent can imagine even as it is happening, having to plan your child’s memorial service while your child is still living. But this is what the hospice workers recommend as summer approaches, an important step, they say, part of the process. And so, with the help of the Internet, the Mansfields ask friends and strangers to send origami cranes to the house to be used in the service. The goal is to get a total of a thousand, a reference to a Japanese legend promising that anyone who folds a thousand cranes will be granted the wish of longevity. Within days, the cranes begin arriving: first from local acquaintances, then from as far as New Zealand, from prisoners, from famous origami masters. The word has gotten out, one of these mysteries of the digital age. Soon there are more than 13,000 cranes all over the house.

A hospital bed is moved into Killian’s basement room. Though he’s supposed to stay down there, he makes his way upstairs whenever he can, and one afternoon he discovers all the origami cranes scattered around the house. “What are these for?” he asks.

By early August, it’s clear that Killian is in his final days. He can’t get out of bed. At night, his friends call him and talk to him on the phone, even though at this point Killian can no longer respond. Local musicians, many who played on the album, stop by the house during the day to play music in his room. On the night of August 20, his parents are by his side, his father holding his hand, his mother playing “Tonight You Belong to Me” on Killian’s uke. Midway through the song, his father feels that Killian has stopped breathing.

“He’s gone,” he says.

In the end, after much persuading, Killian allowed “Kiss” and “If I Can Dream” to appear on the album. For all the high-profile figures who lent their time to the project, professionals who have spent much of their adult lives in recording studios, those two tracks stand out over the rest, showcasing not Killian’s potential as a musician whose life was cut short, but what he actually could do as a precocious artist. Listening to “Kiss,” you can hear Killian’s swagger, his confidence at transforming someone else’s song into his own, three minutes and three seconds of pure moxie. On “If I Can Dream,” on the other hand, you hear just Killian’s voice over a swelling piano, morphing into something of a howl by the end, raw but in control, an edge of anger creeping in, far from defeated. The song, the album’s last, is a declaration. Here I am, Killian Mansfield, forever in top form: funky, unpredictable, innocent, a boy who lived the life of a man.